Welcome to the July edition of “What’s Good?”.

Sarah is one of the most uplifting, committed, supportive and all-around talented members of the community. Whether it is feedback, hosting events, uplifting others, creating art, visualisations or blogging. 

Sarah is a Tableau Zen Master, previous and current. She is also a Tableau Social Ambassador, LondonTUG representative and founder of IronQuest. You can find her on Twitter, Youtube, Tableau Public and her blog. This month’s topic is on the feedback loop and how to leverage your skills.

You can find her social accounts through this link.

CJ: Sarah, thank you for agreeing to be part of the What’s Good series. To start, how is your new role going? Are you enjoying being back as a Tableau Developer?

S: Firstly, thank you for inviting me to be part of the What’s Good series. I’m really enjoying my new role at Red Hat! While I never stopped being a Tableau Developer, this role will see me using Tableau more than I was previously. In addition to that, I’ll be supporting our internal Tableau Community, including building out resources to ensure our users are well-equipped to create world-class analytics and make data-informed decisions.

CJ: You founded your blog back in 2016. For those that live under a rock(!!), Explain a little about your data journey so far.

S: That’s right, but I actually began my Tableau journey in 2014. I was introduced to Tableau whilst working as an Analyst in the Facilities Management industry. At the time I was working heavily in Excel so as you can imagine, Tableau’s capabilities blew me away! I discovered the community when looking for ways to improve my Tableau skills. This was around the same time that #MakeoverMonday started. I joined Twitter and nervously submitted my first-ever Tableau Public viz in week 9 of that year. From there, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in more community projects and attend Tableau User Group events. I was lucky enough to make it to the final of IronViz Europe in 2018 and my IronViz experience inspired me to launch the #IronQuest project in 2019; a project which follows the same format as the IronViz feeder competition. For the last 4 years I have been working as a Tableau Consultant, supporting clients with their Tableau needs, as well as getting involved in shaping data strategies and internal community building.

CJ: We’ve just had IronViz 2021 feeder. What are some of your reflections?

S: IronViz season is always a busy, but exciting time for me! Given my leadership of IronQuest and it’s close association with IronViz, I tend to put any IronQuest activities on hold while the feeder(s) are open. For the first time in a number of years, I was neither judging nor competing in IronViz this year. While the judging experience is great, it means you can’t really get immersed in the contest like you would as a regular on-looker. This year, I was able to enjoy the entries as they appeared on Twitter (in previous years I’ve muted the hashtag in an effort to remain impartial as a judge). It feels like the standard of entries raises a notch every year, with this year being no exception. There are so many impressive vizzes in the IronViz gallery! However, I realise how IronViz can also stir up emotions of ‘not being good enough’ as participants inevitably compare themselves to the competition. This is one of the reasons I set up IronQuest; to give people a safe space to practice and improve their skills and in turn, their confidence. I regularly remind participants, IronViz isn’t all about winning. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s no different to running a marathon. The vast majority of athletes don’t enter with the hope of winning. Instead, they enter for the challenge and the experience; often in competition with their own best performance, rather than anyone else. With over 300 people entering IronViz this year, the odds of winning or even reaching the top 10, are slim. All things considered, participants shouldn’t feel disheartened if they don’t make the top spot. If you participated in IronViz this year you likely pushed yourself out of your comfort zone, learnt new skills, and hopefully enjoyed the experience. That in itself is something to be proud of. 

CJ: You alongside others in the community set up feedback sessions for IronViz. Of the three marking criteria Design, Story-Telling and Analysis which do you find most community members excel at?

S: I would say it depends. The community as a whole is passionate about design. Many community members share blogs with design tips or tutorials on how to use complimentary tools (such a Figma) to improve their designs in Tableau. Likewise, regular participants in community projects such as MakeoverMonday tend to learn data viz design best practices quite quickly, simply by looking at the work shared by more experienced participants or project leaders and regular practice. As a result, the standard of data viz designs shared in the community have improved in recent years. The same goes for storytelling too. I would say the area people tend to struggle with the most is analysis. In Iron Viz, the judges aren’t looking for you to simply present the data you found. They want you to bring the interesting insights in your data to the surface and share these instead. In other words, as well as showing the “what”, attempt to show the “why” and “how”. All of this must be done whilst selecting the best-suited charts for the job too! I think people often think that adding a fancy chart to a viz will score them extra points but that’s simply not the case. If the chart helps to tell the story and uncover interesting insights that’s great. But including a chart simply because you think it looks good isn’t the right approach. There’s nothing wrong with using bar charts if they work effectively with your data. 

CJ: You’ve done 10 IronQuest Feedback videos on youtube. How important is it to have feedback? Do you have any common themes you feedback on for the IronQuest?

S: Feedback is an important part of IronQuest. I set up this project to give people a safe space to practice and improve their skills. I believe feedback plays a crucial role in ‘getting better’ and has been key for me throughout my Tableau journey. Practice alone is great, but if we don’t actively seek feedback on our work, I believe we’re missing a further opportunity to improve. Through seeking feedback from others, we can identify areas for improvement in our work that we may not have even considered. Often simple tweaks identified through feedback can make a big difference too. 

In terms of common feedback themes, most of our feedback focuses on design and presentation. With a project like IronQuest where everyone is using their own datasets, it’s more difficult to offer feedback on the way the data has been analysed (unless there’s something obvious that could be changed). Effective use of colour, accessibility considerations, font hierarchies and layout are things that we cover frequently. You’ll be surprised how many people publish vizzes or charts without titles too!

CJ: Have you had a favourite IronQuest?

S: I actually have two! Both were from 2020; the Quantified Self round and “Myths, Mystery and Magic”. Firstly, the Quantified Self round was run in the middle of the first Coronavirus wave. At this point, many countries had lockdowns in place and peoples lives had inevitably changed dramatically. As a result, many people were taking up new hobbies or tracking aspects of their lives they had never recorded before. This meant that many people had data that was begging to be visualised! We received a record 64 entries for this round and each viz offered a unique insight into the authors’ life. It was really inspiring to see how other people were using the lockdown to their advantage. 

My second favourite round was “Myths, Mystery and Magic”, which also ran in 2020. The idea of this round was to visualise something fun and wacky, given everything that was going on in the world at the time. The community never fails to disappoint and the entries for this round were everything I had hoped they would be, and more! Aliens, witches, local legends, mythical creatures, conspiracy theories, and many more. You name it, we had a viz for it!

CJ: Is there a right and wrong way to give feedback? Do you have any considerations for those that want to be more included in both giving and receiving feedback?

S: Yes, I believe there’s certainly a way to give feedback that’s both effective and sensitive at the same time. Asking for feedback puts the requestor in a vulnerable position. As someone requesting feedback, the last thing you want to hear is that your viz isn’t very good or needs significant improvement. Fi Gordon has an effective method of giving feedback which I have adopted in my approach. She starts off by calling out things she likes in a viz. This helps to put the requestor at ease and builds confidence. She then follows this up with “I suggest”; drawing attention to areas which could be improved. I think the language here is important. Feedback should always be taken as a suggestion. In the community-setting, nobody is obliged to iterate their viz based on the feedback they receive from others. Nobody understands the viz better than the author and there may be a logical reason why things are designed in a particular way. The feedback purely stands as advice, which can be taken on board or politely ignored. 

For those seeking feedback on their work on social media, stating you would like feedback in your post is important. If feedback has not been requested, it should not be given (unless there is a fundamental flaw in the viz which could cause harm or spread misinformation, of course). I tend to give feedback to other authors in private on social media. Not because I don’t want others to see the feedback I have offered, but because feedback can be a sensitive topic and may not be well-received in a public setting. I strongly recommend reading this post by Ben Jones for more thoughts on this topic.

CJ: You produced a wonderful blog on reasons to enter the IronViz. Reason 5 specifically was to get noticed. Were there any new members of the community that caught your eye?

S: I love the way IronViz uncovers new talent! This year was no exception. However, if I start naming authors, I’ll inevitably miss someone out! I will say I was so pleased to see so many authors enter IronViz for the first time this year! Many of these authors have been actively involved in the community for less than 12 months. However, even some longer-term community members took the plunge this year! Entering an IronViz feeder is not easy so I commend everyone for taking part. 

CJ: You showed tremendous support during the IronViz feeder for those needing motivation. Why was this important to you?

S: Yes, and I touched on it before. IronViz can be an intimidating experience. Seeing other people show off their work on social media while you’re still frantically working on your own creates immense pressure. It’s at this point, imposter syndrome can kick in and for some people, this is the end of the road. I didn’t want anyone to give up or feel like their work wasn’t good enough. I felt like it was important to offer a few encouraging words for anyone who needed to hear them. I would hate for people to spend days working on a viz and in the end, not submit it because they felt it wasn’t ‘up to standard’. I’ve been in this position myself and it’s not fun. Hopefully those posts helped people reach the final stretch! 

CJ: You’ve created some awesome Procreate drawings. Do you consider it solely a hobby or do you think it helps with your data toolkit? In your opinion, what other tools compliment Tableau?

S: Thank you! I got started on Procreate after being inspired by Autumn Battani. Autumn gave me an overview of Procreate before I had used it and instantly, I knew I needed to get myself an iPad so I could try it myself. Right now, Procreate is solely a hobby, separate from my Tableau work. I’m still learning the basics and most of what I do is a product of following tutorials others post on YouTube or Instagram. I’ve always loved drawing and Procreate makes it so easy and fun. I also find drawing to be very relaxing, plus it gives me a chance to be creative outside of Tableau. That being said, at some point I’ll explore ways to bring my Procreate work into Tableau. It would also make a great tool for wireframing! 

CJ: What are your most favorite places to get inspirations for your drawings and dashboards?

S: For my drawings, my favourite resource is Art with Flo (https://www.youtube.com/artwithflo). Her tutorials are fantastic and really well explained. 

For my dashboards, Tableau Public is my favourite source of inspiration. I’m always favouriting work there that could be useful to my future self. For inspiration outside of the Tableau world, my go-to places for inspiration are Pinterest, Dribble, Behance and Instagram. I keep libraries of inspiration on sites which allow it and try to organise my inspirations so they are easy to find later. 

CJ: A lot of people want to get better at something but often fall short because of a variety of reasons such as time and motivation. Has this ever happened to you? What tips could you give?

S: Yes, of course! I think we all set out with the best intentions of practicing regularly, but then life gets in the way! I strongly believe that if you want to do something, you’ll make the time for it, no matter how busy you are (as opposed to the “I’ll do it when I find the time” approach). I try to schedule time in my calendar for things I want to do. That could be an hour before work, or some time in the evening. Do whatever works best for you. When I was learning Tableau, I stopped watching TV completely. I would put my daughter to bed in the evening and go straight onto Tableau. I’ve relaxed a bit now and use TV time as more of a reward these days. For example, if you sit down to watch Netflix in the evening, you’ll likely be there all night. Netflix is designed to make you want to binge-watch shows! But if you discipline yourself to spend an hour or two on the thing you want to get better at first, you could always squeeze in an episode of your favourite show as a reward afterwards.  

CJ: What’s next for you?

S: Good question! Well, I recently started my new role at Red Hat so I’m excited to get more involved with that. Outside of work, I’m currently planning the next IronQuest round. It’s going to be a good one! I also want to get back into vizzing for fun. Much of my work over the past 12 months has been on IronQuest and other initiatives to support the community. As a result, I haven’t done a personal viz in a while and I really miss it.

CJ: Final question…. How do you find the time for everything!

S: Haha! I don’t! Nobody can do everything. Believe me, I’ve tried (and failed). You might be able to keep up the pace for a while but eventually, you’ll get burnt out and give up completely. There have been times in the last year or so when I’ve lost motivation and felt like giving up, but then I remember why I got started in the first place and how much I enjoy blogging, vizzing and supporting others in the community. Now I try to balance my time better and give my attention to only a handful of things at a time. I’m getting better at saying “no” to things too! 

CJ Round-Up:

I really loved Sarah’s marathon analogy in the blog, that the vast majority of athletes don’t enter with the hope of winning. Instead, for the challenge and experience. I think it echo’s nicely the Tableau quote of “Win or Learn you Can’t Lose”.

A second element that resonated with me was her view on feedback and it’s delivery. I particularly would re-recommend the suggestion of reading Ben Jones article, having gone and read it myself before publishing. Ben mentions trying to put yourself in the shoes of both the giver and the receiver of feedback. I think this mindset will really help shape the language used.

As always, a massive thank you to Sarah for the guest blog. I am super excited to see some of her personal vizzes comes to life in the latter half of the year! Wishing her continued success and stay tuned for the next IronQuest!